Drawn to Order

Illustrated standouts for the holiday season.

Hanukkah is just around the corner, so I strongly recommend The Rabbi's Cat (Pantheon, $21.95) by French writer/illustrator Joann Sfar, whose earlier children's books like Little Vampire Does Kung Fu have also been translated into English. The three stories here are more for adults, though they have their whimsical elements. In one, the feline, who lives with a widowed rabbi in 1930s Algiers, gains the gift of speech by gobbling up the household parrot. Soon he's disputing the finer points of theology with the rabbi and other astonished Jews. Mainly he dotes on the rabbi's daughter, who later gets married, prompting a family trip to Paris. Working in color, Sfar uses consistent six-panel pages with thought and speech bubbles like a traditional comic. His squiggly, jittery hand somewhat resembles that of The New Yorker's Roz Chast, as if he dips his pen in coffee.

Also holiday themed is Bruce Eric Kaplan's Every Last Person on the Planet (Simon & Schuster, $11.95), about a hapless Brooklyn couple who feel guilty about their selective holiday party list, so they end up inviting . . . you get the idea. "The line for the bathroom was nightmarish," writes Kaplan (a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker who also wrote for Seinfeld). But, miraculously, billions of people arrive and basically get along fine.

Kaplan's fellow funnyman Matt Groening is spinning off The Simpsons with a series of character-themed manifestos including Comic Book Guy's Book of Pop Culture (HarperCollins, $9.95), in which the fat, lonely collector—rather like Steve Carrell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin—discourses on life and its disappointments. Groening's line work is primitive, but the writing is sharp. "Who will win the great cereal box wars?" ponders CBG. "Could Cap'n Crunch, armed with a sword and supported by a small crew of scurvy sailors," he wonders, defeat the "clearly unafraid of pain" Cocoa Puffs bird? As action-figure death matches go, I would pay money to see that one.

Here are two titles guaranteed to appeal to the Lynne Truss Eats, Shoots & Leaves crowd. Maira Kalman adds elegant, simple artwork to The Elements of Style Illustrated (Penguin, $24.95), taking Strunk and White's famous grammar and usage examples as the subjects for her pastel paints. If her hand seems familiar, that's because she's also worked for Kate Spade. This charming but never cloying volume belongs on the shelves of the Royal Tenenbaums. More traditionally comic book–y but entirely technique obsessed is 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (Penguin, $16.95). Matt Madden takes a simple scenario—his girlfriend interrupts his path to the kitchen by asking him what time it is, causing him to forget what he wants in the fridge—and renders it, yes, 99 ways. It's an eye-opening volume that should get newbies thinking about how paneling, perspective, tense, line weight, characterization, and basically every other trick in the comic book directs our eyes and minds.

Last-minute stocking stuffers: What with the new Fantagraphics reissue series, Charles Schultz fans will appreciate Peanuts Guide to Life (Running Press, $12.95). Parents can read to kids beneath the tree from A Visit From St. Alphabet (Coffee House, $9.95), to help them master those pesky ABCs. In a more morbid frame of mind, I can't resist a plug for Richard Sala's Mad Night (Fantagraphics, $18.95), a gruesome campus murder mystery—kind of like Nancy Drew rendered with wood-block prints. The faculty of evil has freak-type faces like early Dick Tracy. Any comic with zombie pirate coeds merits a second (or third) glass of eggnog.


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